The Penn State University Sheild
open the search bar
Open the menu

"Ethical Leadership": Dean Korner's Keynote Address for Smeal College of Business Student Sapphire Leadership Program, November 2011

I admit that accepting an invitation to speak on Ethical Leadership has created some fear, trepidation, and an overwhelming dose of humility.  Although one of my father’s tenets of child-rearing was, “Do as I say and not as I do,” that is not an option for any leader who wishes to create an environment that fosters trust and respect and encourages people to feel that they are contributing to a valuable and worthwhile endeavor.  When one dares to speak on a topic such as this, you open yourself up for those who have a chance to observe you daily that you fall short of your own expectations.  And to some extent, that is true.  Ethical leadership does not mean you will be perfect; you will not always make what you or someone else feels is the right choice.  Ethical Leadership means being aware that our choices have consequences and recognizing that we will always be working to balance our values as individuals with the values we experience in the group that forms our society.  Sometimes that will be a group at work, in a club or civic organization, or as a citizen who participates in a democratic society.  My guess is that most of you have been in leadership roles since you were in high school if not before—officers in student groups and other organizations.  In some cases, you have served in informal leadership roles—and those are as important as any title after any name.  Armed with the additional experiences you have had in the university, you will continue to serve as a leader in many different walks of life—as parents, as volunteers in your communities, as supervisors or CEO’s of small and large organizations and companies. For the next few minutes, I want to share with you some observations from a lifetime of serving in such roles myself.    

Let’s start with some definitions that may be useful as we engage together in observations on ethical leadership.  Again, these are working definitions used in a workshop setting led by The Effectiveness Institute of Redmond, Washington.[i]

Ethics is the study of right and wrong, usually involving determining and encouraging of what is right.

Value is a tightly held belief upon which a person acts by choice.  This is usually something that hooks us and we may hold it so strongly that we act upon it without thinking.  Values often seem very clear to us and we can be surprised when others don’t share our values. 

An ethical issue is a situation in which there is one answer or choice that is clearly right, such as involving the rule of law or company policy. 

Ethical dilemma is a situation in which there is a conflict in the minds of people between values, or a conflict between what is right and what is wrong.  You have to make a choice. 

Ethical behavior is acting responsibly in difficult and/or complex situations, and acting with integrity of character and judgment. 

Ethical behavior is the crux of ethical leadership.  Most decisions are not isolated ethical issues, which usually have to do with a clear-cut issue of right and wrong based on a rule of law or company policy.  Instead, you will often find yourself facing ethical dilemmas as a leader and you begin to realize that ethical decisions and behaviors aren’t a simple matter of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong; ethical dilemmas seldom come in black and white—they come in living color with real people who may hold differing values with equal amounts of intensity. 

Ethical dilemmas play out daily in our newspapers and television screens.  Reducing debt is the right thing to do for the future of our country.  The senators and representatives who are on that super committee are  struggling with the “right” actions to take to make progress because they (and their constituents) hold different values about what is the “right” thing to do to find a balance between curtailing expenses and increasing revenue.  The extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale all around us in Pennsylvania represents a clash of values.  I have a friend who recently retired as the president of a small gas and oil exploration firm.  Last year, while he was visiting, I introduced him to a man who heads up a regional organization of dairy farmers and conservation organization and sat back to watch how their clash of values would play out as they discussed Marcellus Shale.  They were quite civil and seemed to listen respectfully to each other’s perspective.  On the other hand, I read in the New York Times this last Sunday about lifetime neighbors and friends who are now participating in threatening blogs and other actions because they find themselves on opposite sides of this issue.[ii]  Closer to home, we had an issue emerge in the university last year about the costs of textbooks and faculty receiving royalty income from their own students.  Some faculty members see this as perfectly appropriate; others do not and these differing values result in different practices across the university.  Some people on either side of this issue will argue about the “ethics” as a black and white issue, but what they are really dealing with is the living color of an ethical dilemma.  

So, how do we negotiate these ethical dilemmas in our lives?  Here are some thoughts garnered from my experiences.  For the record, sometimes I implement these successfully and sometimes I fall short. 

  1. Ethical choices happen every day and you need to be prepared for the small moments, not just the big dilemmas.  Do you talk about someone else to others when they are not present?  That is, do you gossip?  Every time you do, you make an ethical choice.  If you are talking to A and A complains about B, it may seem natural to agree, to sympathize, and to share your own complaints about B.  A may be glad to know that you agree with him, but  when A leaves the room, especially if you are a leader figure in the organization for both A&B, A is going to wonder what you say about him when he’s not around.  A friend of mine in grad school said the most important rule was to always be the last to leave the bar so they can’t talk about you.  Integrity and ethics starts with the smallest of actions.  People are watching you every moment. 

  1. Don’t sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.  Balance short-term choices against the backdrop of the long-term choices you need to make.  We talk a lot today about the desire for instant gratification and you can see this in the whip lash of our political winds and the debacle of the mortgage bankers.  As future leaders of American business, you will have to find a way to stand firm against this cultural tendency. 

  1. Richard III is one of the most interesting and despicable of Shakespeare’s character.  In the play named after him, it opens with the coronation of Richard’s oldest brother Edward as King of England.  There are 4 people between Richard and the throne to which he aspires.  King Edward, an older brother Clarence and Edward’s two young sons.  As the play opens, Richard lays out his plans to the audience:

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,

By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,

To set my brother Clarence and the king

In deadly hate the one against the other:

And if King Edward be as true and just

As I am subtle, false and treacherous,

This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up . . .

What Richard lays out is that he will create strife (through false gossip and accusations between his two brothers, Edward and Clarence) and Clarence will be incarcerated in the Tower of London.  This works, and Clarence is killed in the Tower, under Richard’s order, supposedly in support of King Edward.  King Edward, who is sickly, dies.  This leaves only Edward’s two sons and Richard manages to kill them off.  He ascends the throne.  In real history, Richard III reigned 2 years after managing to kill his family members, as well as others in his way.  In Shakespeare’s play, he doesn’t know a minute of happiness in his reign.  Others plot against him and a massive army is organized to overthrow him.  His last days are spent in the torment of nightmares, knowing that others have learned how to plot effectively against him, just as he did against others.[iii]

Sacrificing the future by making bad choices today never allows a leader to create an ethical organization. 

  1. To thine own self be true . . . this is another of Shakespeare’s famous lines, from Hamlet.  Although there are problems with the character who speaks this line, Polonius, who is neither true to himself or anyone else, the basic premise of the line is important.  You have to spend some time knowing what matters to you.  What are your most important values?  What hooks you?  John D. Rockefeller wrote out “I believe” the ten famous statements that are engraved at Rockefeller Center.  Look those up if you haven’t.  Can you write yours out?  Do you have a personal mission statement?  We spend a lot of time writing out institutional mission statements, but how many have a personal one.
    1. There is a fun exercise that I sometimes use in leadership training:  a [iv]list of 15 common values—accomplishment, honesty, independence, helpful, equality, etc. 
    2. The participants put these in priority order for themselves and the share in small groups. Values such as honest, imaginative, courageous, rational—often surface to the top of list. 
    3. This discussion is followed by some exercises that create ethical dilemmas common in life. 

It’s quite interesting to see what happens when we have to sort through priorities in values and/or come to consensus with others whose values differ.  Example:  Someone lies and violates company policy.  That’s an ethical issue; pretty clear right or wrong especially if you value honesty.  But what if that someone is your best friend, with particular problems you know about and who shares what she has done in strictest confidence.  You value loyalty and helpfulness as well as honesty.  You now have an ethical dilemma on your hands. 

  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.   Ethical leadership requires you to listen openly, respecting that others values may conflict with your own and find the balance between your personal values and those of a larger group.  Often when we listen carefully, we begin to understand another’s perspective.  Sometimes this means we change our own position; sometimes it means that we understand a more effective way to help others understand our position and persuade movement on their part.   Persuasion is the most effective change agent.

  1. Another very important point about this is that ethical leaders send messages where people know that they can disagree with the leaders.  Any leader who sends a message that loyalty is more important than honesty, and wants only to hear “yes” from the people on the leadership team, isn’t going to encourage the voices that will make the organization better tomorrow than it is today.   If you want to see the contrast between surrounding yourself with “yes” people and seeing how persuasion is more effective than power, watch the movie Dave, which illustrates two very funny and poignant perspectives on leadership—not to mention the fun of watching Kevin Klein and Sigorney Weaver on the screen together.   

  1. Act with the courage of your convictions.  Ethical leadership means that you can’t throw up your hands when faced with an ethical dilemma.  You must work through it and when you figure out what needs to be done, you have to take action.  Such action also means communicating with integrity—knowing what to say, whom to say it to, how to say it.  In a former life, I served as chief of staff to the Chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia.  I served 3 different chancellors in that role.  I knew that for each one, the most important task I had was to tell each the truth about how his or her actions would be received.  What I learned was that for each one, I had to deliver that truth in a way that he or she would hear it.  With one I could be very direct and matter of fact.  Another required me to come at the issue sideways and lead the discussion through questions—sort of a tennis match or pseudo-Socratic approach.  The third one could accept the message better if I presented it through a story or with humor.  The integrity or substance of the message didn’t change; the style was adapted. 

So to summarize

  1. Ethical leadership takes place in the smallest choices we make every day.
  2. Ethical leadership means not sacrificing the permanent on the altar of the immediate.
  3. Ethical leadership requires knowing what is most important to myself—what are my values.
  4. Ethical leadership requires open listening and moving people through persuasion not power.
  5. Ethical leadership requires acting with the courage of our convictions. 

In my background as a performer, it has been my great privilege to make the characters and voices of historical women come alive for audiences, especially the voices of ethnic women, some of whom come from the ranks of the most marginalized in our American culture.  Several of my signature solo performance pieces are from historical African-American women preachers, who exhibited integrity and courage in the 19th century in the midst of cultural turmoil surrounding both the women’s rights movement and the abolition of slavery.   One of these figures is Sojourner Truth.  And I think Sojourner may more effectively sum up some of these points about ethical leadership than any words I might end with. 

In 1851, in Akron, Ohio, the 2nd national women’s rights movement was held.  Many people did not want the push for women’s rights to vote to get mixed up with the abolition movement.  Many others saw them as two sides of the same coin—you couldn’t argue for rights for women without also addressing the rights African-Americans, especially those still living in slavery.   Sojourner Truth was a lightning rod, representing both movements and the value of both sides.  After listening to many of the questionable arguments presented against granting women the right to vote, Sojourner Truth rose to speak. 

[Step aside from podium and into character as Sojourner Truth]

Well, children, where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter.  I think twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North all talkin’ about “rights” the white men will be a fix pretty soon.

But what’s all this here talkin’ about?  That man over there says the women ought to be helped into carriages and over mud puddles and ought to have the best place ever’where.  No one ever helps me into carriages or over mud puddles or gives me any best place, and an’t I a woman?

Look at me.  Look at my arm.  I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me—and an’t I a woman?  I could work as hard and eat as much as any man (when I could get it) and bear the lash as well—and an’t I a woman?  I have borne thirteen children and seen them mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out in my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me—and an’t I a woman?

Then that little man in black there, he says woman can’t have as much rights as man, ‘cause Christ wa’n’nt a woman.  Where did your Christ come from? . . . Where did your Christ come from?  From God and a woman.  Man had not’ing to do with him.

I think that if the first woman God ever made was able to turn this world upside down, all by herself, then these women together ought to be able to turn it back and git it right side up again.  Now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me and now old Sojourner ha’n’t nothing more to say.

[i] Good Ethics, Good Business: Making Difficult Choices, A Participants Guide by Hal Calborn and Bill Maynard, The Effectiveness Institute, Redmond, Washington, 1989. 

[ii] New York Times, “Drilling Debate in Cooperstown, NY, Is Personal,” October 30, 2011

[iii] Paul Corrigan provides a more thorough examination of Richard III as a flawed leader in Shakespeare on Management,  Kogan Page, Ltd., London, 1999.

[iv]This is an exercise adapted from Good Ethics, Good Business, as taught to me by Tom Champoux of The Effectiveness Institute.